Healthbeat

5 commonly held myths about end-of-life issues

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Some people don't have a health care power of attorney or living will because they don't realize how important these documents are. Others worry that such documents mean they are signing their lives away. Not so.

These powerful documents make sure that you get the treatment you would want for yourself if you couldn't communicate your wishes. Here are a few myths that shouldn't get in the way of creating a health care power of attorney or living will:

Myth: More care is always better.

Truth: Not necessarily. Sometimes more care prolongs the dying process without respect for quality of life or comfort. It's important to know what interventions are truly important. It's often impossible to know that in advance. That's where the advice of a health care team is invaluable.

Myth: Refusing life support invalidates your life insurance, because you are committing suicide.

Truth: Refusing life support does not mean that you are committing suicide. Instead, the underlying medical problem is considered to be the cause of death.

Myth: If medical treatment is started, it cannot be stopped.

Truth: Not starting a medical treatment and stopping a treatment are the same in the eyes of the law. So you or your health care agent can approve a treatment for a trial period that you think may be helpful, without any fear that you can't change your mind later. However, be aware that stopping treatment can be more emotionally difficult than not starting it in the first place.

Myth: If you refuse life-extending treatments, you're refusing all treatments.

Truth: No matter what treatments you refuse, you should still expect to receive any other care you need or want — especially the pain and symptom management sometimes called intensive comfort care.

Myth: Stopping or refusing artificial nutrition and hydration causes pain for someone who is dying.

Truth: Unlike keeping food or water from a healthy person, for someone who is dying, declining artificial nutrition or intravenous hydration does not cause pain.

For more on setting goals for end-of-life care and avoiding common pitfalls, buy Advance Care Planning, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.